Top Stories of 2016: Summit County rallies together to combat mental illness (No. 2) | SummitDaily.com

Top Stories of 2016: Summit County rallies together to combat mental illness (No. 2)

Dozens of representatives from local organizations gathered last Wednesday for an update on Building Hope Summit County, a collaborative effort to reduce stigma and improve access to mental health care.

Editor's note: The Summit Daily is counting down the top 10 stories of 2016.

In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that suicide rates in the United States had risen to their highest levels in 30 years. That stark figure has thrown nationwide inadequacies in mental health care into sharp relief, but also left experts struggling to identify the causes of declining mental wellness.

While those questions are myriad and unique to every individual, some research has pointed to distress about jobs and finances among middle-aged Americans as a potentially major factor.

Overall, the recovery from the 2008 economic meltdown has been fairly robust in the United States, but the gains have not been evenly shared. Many working Americans have seen their wages stay stubbornly flat, while costs for things like health care and higher education for their children have continued to climb. And while home values have soared in coastal and urban areas, they have remained stagnant in rural parts of the country.

Although Summit County enjoys an abundance of jobs and a vibrant resort economy, it has not been immune to some of these trends. The county has its own set of factors, too, like the potential neurological impacts of living at high elevations and increased rates of substance abuse.

Soaring health insurance premiums and a limited mental health care infrastructure have also contributed to the growing sense in the community that Summit is falling short in mental wellness and may even be in the throes of a mental illness epidemic.

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"There are scary trends in our community around behavioral health," Tamara Drangstveit, executive director of the Family & Intercultural Resource Center said in July. "We do view this as a growing crisis. It's often difficult for folks just to get care, and then you add on to that the fact that behavioral health is still a taboo topic."

That growing awareness has been punctuated throughout the year by a series of tragic, high profile suicides, including a man who intentionally drowned himself in North Pond and a woman who fell from the cliffs on Ptarmigan Trail road.

Ten people died from suicide in Summit County this year, a high matched only in 2014, that is roughly triple the statewide rate.

At the beginning of the year, Breckenridge businesswoman and philanthropist Patti Casey took her own life, a tragic event that served as a galvanizing force when Casey's husband, Tim, and daughter, Betsy, used her passing to rally the community behind the cause of mental wellness.

Those efforts led to the establishment of Building Hope Summit County, an initiative that has marshaled together an unprecedented array of stakeholders, including providers, businesses, nonprofits, schools and even law enforcement.

The group has enjoyed strong fundraising support from the community and has been working all year to identify barriers to care in Summit County and ways to address them.

Two of the biggest obstacles, they found, are reluctance to seek care and lack of awareness about where to go for help.

To counter these, Building Hope is pushing a public awareness campaign to change perceptions and encourage people to, in the words of Betsy Casey, "create a community where people talk about their mental health like they talk about a knee replacement."

The group also aims to further integrate mental wellness into traditional heath care systems and lower financial barriers to care by, one day, setting up a voucher program that would allow people to get treatment at no cost.

"I think there are enough providers. There just aren't enough that can deliver care at an affordable price," said assistant county manager Sarah Vaine in August. "And they can't do it for free, of course."

The challenges to improving mental health in Summit County are many, and will take a collaborative effort by the community to identify and confront. But while 2016 has demonstrated that this is a serious problem, it has also shown that local residents and institutions are willing to rise to the occasion.